CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility

By Michael Phillips
2017; Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT
ISBN-10: 160358658X;
ISBN-13: 978-1603586580
Hardcover; 256 pages; 8 x 0.8 x 10.1 inches

Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae

By Jeff Lowenfels
2017; Timber Press, Portland, OR
ISBN-10: 1604697296;
ISBN-13: 978-1604697292
Hardcover; 172 pages; 6.1 x 1 x 9.1 inches

New books on mushroom cultivation continue to come out, almost monthly. This year’s list includes a slightly new spin: cultivation of plants (in the garden, orchard, etc.) using mycorrhizal fungi as a partner. The gist being that you are sort of cultivating fungi, or encouraging them at the very least, to organically (“holistically”) benefit your cultivated plants. Like probably all home gardeners, I’m willing to do things more holistically if someone is willing to show me how and as long as it doesn’t mean an undue amount of work to me. Two brand new books promise to meet both of those demands … let’s see if they deliver. Both books reviewed here cover a similar topic but in very different styles.

Mycorrhizal fungi-plant relationships have been one of the hottest areas of mycological research for the past couple of decades. When I was an undergrad they were barely known. The state of the art in agriculture back then did not really include fungi (save pathogenic ones) in the formula for success. Science was still riding the post-WWII wave of “better living through chemistry” and all problems in the field or orchard were solved by spraying pesticides or adding more fertilizer. This pretty much held for home gardeners too. Fungi were misunderstood and even scorned by gardeners for a long time. The interaction is so complex that only recently have we begun to get a handle on it. But in the last few years, scientists have come to realize just how important mycorrhizae are to plant health. Mycorrhizae help to bolster the “immune systems” of your plants, thus impacting everything in their life cycle, including resistance to pests and disease, which increases yield and quality. Indeed, nearly every kind of plant in a garden can benefit from these fungi. What the home gardener needs is a source of accessible, concise information. Teaming with Fungi is it. Jeff Lowenfels, also author of Teaming with Microbes, clearly explains how these beneficial fungi can make or break a plant’s success, and how to optimize those advantages. Lowenfels, a weekly columnist for Anchorage Daily News for more than 40 years, is the founder of Plant a Row for the Hungry, a program that has already created more than 14 million meals to feed people in need. He’s the former president of the Garden Writers Association (GWA), and in 2005 was inducted into the GWA Hall of Fame. Teaming with Fungi is just perfect for those seeking an introduction to mycorrhizal fungi. The book is very concise and easy to read, yet covers quite literally every aspect of mycorrizal fungi from and overview of taxonomy, to physiology, to the kinds of fungi that associate with various plants in nature and around the home, including information on which commercial mixes are right for the homeowner depending on your types of foliage or garden plants. Like all Timber Press titles, the book is very well made and nicely illustrated, and at twenty five bucks for the hardback, I’m tempted to pick up the other two books in the “Teaming with…” series. If you are wanting a source of information on mycorrhizal fungi, but not necessarily the kind of person who will be interested in growing or applying the knowledge gleaned from a book, this title is for you.

Mycorrhizal Planet by New England based holistic grower and author Michael Phillips is a really nice book, chock full of great tips, with plenty of images to show you how to deploy all the latest organic techniques and buzzwords like permaculture, mycoremediation, biochar, green manuring, cover cropping, and over-cropping. The book is a nice large size format, but is a very quick read. Phillips has authored other very popular books and this latest will doubtless do very well. The author’s writing style is conversational and almost poetic at times. He makes heavy use of colloquialisms—like pretty much every paragraph—which may not suit everyone’s tastes. Phillips’s firsthand knowledge of the book’s major topics shines through. He does get lost a bit when attempting to explain more scientific matters like microbial taxonomy and physiology. Examples include explaining mycorrhizal lifestyles—“…mycorrhizal fungi unable to break down organic matter…” (it’s well known nowadays that many ectomycorrhizal fungi possess the ability to live saprobically); fungi-like Actinomycetes bacteria “…are only recently known to be bacteria, not fungi, thanks to DNA sequence analysis…” (they were bacteria in my 1970s era undergrad Biology 101 textbook, and that predates the routine use of DNA as taxonomic tool); etc. My quibbles are small and likely to go unnoticed by most readers, and did not detract from an otherwise really useful book. If you are the kind of person who will be interested in growing or applying the knowledge gleaned from a book about mycorrhizae, and not so much wanting a collection of facts and information on mycorrhizal fungi, then this title is for you.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi